by Georgia Westbrook
This is the first post in a new series of conversations between emerging professionals and archivists actively working with digital materials.
Amy Berish is an Assistant Archivist at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. There, she is a member of the Processing Team, working on processing collections that cover a wide range of philanthropic history and a variety of materials. A recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Master of Library and Information Science program, Amy has generously shared her path and experiences with bloggERS!
Amy began working in her local library when she was 14 and went on to major in library and information science as an undergraduate. While there and throughout graduate school, she worked at the university library, took various internships, and worked for school credit at the preservation lab, all in an effort to find her place in the library and archives world.
In her current role at the Rockefeller Archive Center, she works as part of a larger staff to process incoming collections in both paper and digital formats. The Rockefeller Archive Center collects materials related to the Rockefeller family, but also several other large philanthropic organizations, including the Ford Foundation, the Near East Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the W. T. Grant Foundation, among others. While she shied away from working with digital formats and learning coding skills during college, she has had the opportunity to pursue that work in her current role and has embraced the challenges that have come with it.
“I feel like digital work is the biggest challenge right now, in both the work I am doing and the work of the broader archival profession,” she said. “Learning to navigate the technical skills required to do some of the work we are doing can be especially daunting. Having a positive attitude about change and a willingness to learn is often easier said than done – but I also think these two factors could help make this type of work seem more doable.”
Amy has found support in her teams at the Rockefeller Archive Center and in the archives community in and around New York City. For example, Digital Team members at the Rockefeller Archive Center reminded her that it would be ok to break things in the code, and that they would be able to fix it if she wanted to experiment with a new way of scripting. She has also found support in online forums, which have allowed her to connect to others doing related work across the country.
Beyond scripting, part of her position requires her to deal with formats that might be obsolete or nearly so, and to face policy questions regarding proprietary information and copyright. Like coding however, Amy has used her enthusiasm for learning new skills as an asset in facing these challenges.
“I love learning new things and as a processing archivist, it’s part of my job to continue to learn more about various topics through each collection I process,” Amy said. “I also get the opportunity to learn through some of the digital projects I am working on. I have learned to automate processes by writing scripts. I have also had a lot experience lately working with legacy digital media – from optical disks and floppies to zip disks and Bernoulli disks – it has been a challenge trying to get 10-year-old media to function properly!”
As a new professional, Amy was quick to mention some of the challenges that archivists can face at the beginning of their career. Still, she said, a pat on the back for each small step you take is well-deserved. She cited one of her graduate school professors, who encouraged her to cultivate an “ethos of fearlessness” when facing technology; she said the phrase has become a mantra in her current position. Since that, Amy acknowledged, is easier said than done, especially while you’re still in school, she has three other pieces of advice to share for others just starting out in digital archives work: Take the opportunities you’re given, always be ready to learn, and don’t be afraid digital work.
Georgia Westbrook is an MSLIS student at Syracuse University. She’s interested in visual resources, oral histories, digital publishing, and open access. Connect with her on LinkedIn or on her website.